The Duke Blue Devils men's basketball team was expected to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament going into the 2020-21 season.
A slow start that featured losses to the two best teams — Virginia Tech and Illinois — that Duke has played, by seven and 15 points, respectively, spurred doubts. But few were pressing the panic button, believing Duke would eventually figure its problems out with such a talented, albeit young, roster.
With March Madness inching closer, though, the potential upside that head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad possesses hasn’t quite translated to tangible wins. The Blue Devils haven’t found their identity, and the team's inexperience continues to show.
Yet sophomore forward Matthew Hurt has taken his offensive game to another level. After an unproductive first season, his scoring has jumped almost 10 points per game this year. His sweet jump shot and nifty repertoire of moves makes him a solid candidate for ACC Player of the Year.
But his defense needs work. Hurt can get outmuscled by in the post, while guards can blow by him. After picking up four or more fouls in five of 13 games this year, he's shown he also has a tendency to get into foul trouble. He’s too lethal offensively to be kept off the floor, but he's still finding his footing on the other end of the floor, with few signs of that changing any time soon.
Duke’s other star, first-year forward Jalen Johnson, has also flashed elite offensive abilities. He can get to the rim as well as anyone in college basketball, and his strong frame makes him a scoring threat whenever he’s on the floor. He’s also shown promise as a defender, using his 6-foot-9 frame to his advantage.
He’s held back by his below-average perimeter game and his tendency to pick up early fouls, though. For a player who is adept at getting to the line, he doesn’t have a great free throw percentage, shooting only 63.6 percent for the season.
What's more, Hurt and Johnson have lacked chemistry, preventing them from bringing out each other's best qualities. The one-two combo of Hurt’s sharpshooting plus Johnson’s driving ability should work on paper, but they rarely put up big numbers in the same game. They were finally able to somewhat get there in the team’s 75-68 win over Georgia Tech, where Johnson had 18 points on 7-11 shooting and Hurt had 17 points on 6-11 shooting. The recipe is there, but it hasn’t shown up enough to increase Duke’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
Consistency is another issue, illustrated best by sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. The 6-foot-5 forward followed up a dominant 25-point performance against Boston College with three four-point outings in his next five games before scoring 11 and 18 against Clemson and Miami, respectively.
There’s also no real center behind the frontcourt of Hurt and Johnson who has been getting a healthy dose of minutes. First-years Mark Williams and Henry Coleman III haven’t fully established themselves as consistent impact players, despite Williams' 11 point night against the Tigers. That’ll give the Blue Devils trouble against teams with larger frontcourts, such as UNC.
There have been a lot of similarities between the games before and after the Blue Devils’ three-week pause on non-conference games, which does not bode well for the future. That said, there are some positives to take away from their most recent games.
The most apparent improvement has been the play of first-year guard DJ Steward. He continues to make massive strides on offense and looks more confident. If he, Hurt and Johnson mesh, then Duke will have a chance of playing in Indiana come March.
But, so far, that trio hasn’t been an elite offensive combination. The Blue Devils, who rank No. 134 in the country in points per game (73.8), have only scored more than 80 points twice – one of those times coming against Coppin State – and their season-high scoring output is 83 points.
The defensive play has been there, led by senior guard Jordan Goldwire, who is 15th in the nation in steals per game (2.42). Other than Hurt and a lack of size in the post, there’s not much concern on that end.
The question remains if Duke is ready to put it all together. There were signs of that against the Yellow Jackets, but only time will tell if this team can successfully play together. And time is running out before its Feb. 6 contest against the Tar Heels.